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About media framing • (written by Brian Dean)

Archive for the ‘Frame semantics’ Category

‘Moral decay’ & other fun metaphors

(Essentials of framing – Part 3)

Media hysteria sometimes calms down a little (eg when the focus is on the decent, respectable people* rather than the bad people*). But it only takes one horrible crime to set it off again. Then we have: “moral decay”, “erosion of values”, “tears in the moral fabric”, a “chipping away” at moral “foundations”, etc. It shouldn’t be surprising that these metaphors for change-as-destruction tend to accompany ‘conservative’ moral viewpoints rather than ‘progressive’ ones.

If True Moral Values™ are regarded as absolute and unchanging (which seems the case with ‘Strict Father’, ie ‘Authoritarian’, moral schemes – see Parts 1 & 2), then change to the way we think about moral issues must be seen as a threat. And since standards do change in society over time (for numerous reasons, and whether we like it or not), advocates of Strictness Morality see moral decay everywhere, and may believe that “society is going to hell” (or “turning to shit”) – they might even yearn for some Golden Age, a mythical time before things started “degenerating”.

“Moral Purity” & “Moral Health”

Associated with moral ‘decay’ is the metaphor of impurity, ie rot, corruption or filth. This extends further, to the metaphor of morality as health. Thus, immoral ideas are described as “sick“, immoral people are seen to have “diseased minds”, etc. These metaphorical frames have the following consequences in terms of how we think:

1. Even minor immorality is seen as a major threat (since introduction of just a tiny amount of “corrupt” substance can taint the whole supply – think of water reservoir or blood supply. This is applied to the abstract moral realm via conceptual metaphor.)

2. Immorality is regarded as “contagious”. Thus, immoral ideas must be avoided or censored, and immoral people must be isolated or removed, forcibly if necessary. Otherwise they’ll “infect” the morally healthy/strong. Does this way of thinking sound familiar?

In Philosophy in the Flesh, Johnson & Lakoff point out that with “health” as metaphor for moral well-being, immorality is framed as sickness and disease, with important consequences for public debate:

“One crucial consequence of this metaphor is that immorality, as moral disease, is a plague that, if left unchecked, can spread throughout society, infecting everyone. This requires strong measures of moral hygiene, such as quarantine and strict observance of measures to ensure moral purity. Since diseases can spread through contact, it follows that immoral people must be kept away from moral people, lest they become immoral, too. This logic often underlies guilt-by-association arguments, and it often plays a role in the logic behind urban flight, segregated neighborhoods, and strong sentencing guidelines even for nonviolent offenders.”

Enemies everywhere, everything a threat

So, to conclude from Parts 1, 2 and the above – there’s a lot to fear from the perspective of ‘Strictness Morality’: the world’s a dangerous place, there’s immorality (and indeed “evil”) all over the place, lurking everywhere, ready to jump out at you. And any weakness that you manifest will be punished. Even the good, decent people are competing ruthlessly with you, judging you for any failure.

“That’s not Charlie the Tuna out there… it’s Jaws.”
G. Gordon Liddy (US shock-jock)

In a way, this moral framing logically requires that the world is seen as essentially dangerous. Remove this premise and Strictness Morality ‘collapses’, since the precedence given (in this scheme) to moral strength, self-discipline and authority (over compassion, fairness, happiness, etc) would no longer make sense.

Tabloid newspapers appear to have the function of reinforcing the fearful premise with daily scaremongering – presumably because it’s more profitable than less dramatic “news”. But this repeated stimulation of our fears affects our brains at a synaptic level. The fear/alarm framing receives continual reinforcement.

And pretty soon that’s how we start to think…

See also:
Part 1 of this article
Part 2 of this article

* ‘Decent, respectable people’: the ones in suits with money and power; the authorities.
‘Bad people’: potentially everyone else; insignificant but awkward types, you & me.

Written by NewsFrames

May 17, 2012 at 8:12 am

Essentials of framing – Part 2

‘Strict Father’ (or ‘Authoritarian’) moral framing (which underlies ‘conservative’ ideology – see part 1) affects us in many ways…

We’re constrained by ‘social attitudes’ which put moral values in a different order than our own. Moral conflicts aren’t just about “good” vs “bad” – they’re about conflicting hierarchies of values.

“Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists”
— George W. Bush

“If you can’t be polite to our guests, you have to sit at the kiddies’ table”
— Hannibal Lecter

For example, you mightn’t regard hard work or self-discipline as the main indicators of a person’s worth – but someone with economic power over you (eg your employer) might…….

→ “Laziness is bad”
Under ‘strictness’ morality, self-indulgence (eg idleness) is seen as moral weakness, ie emergent evil. It represents a failure to develop the ‘moral strengths’ of self-control and self-discipline (which are primary values in this worldview). At this point you might want to reflect on how much the Puritan work ethic has affected your life in terms of hours spent in “productive employment” (or “pointless drudgery”).

→ “Time-wasting is very bad”
Laziness also implies wasted time according to this viewpoint. So it’s ‘bad’ in the further sense that “time is money” (see part 1). Inactivity and idleness are seen as inherently costly, a financial loss. People tend to forget that this is metaphorical – there is no literal “loss” – and the frame excludes notions of benefits (or “gains”) resulting from inaction/indolence.

“Welfare is very, very bad”
Regarded (by some) as removing the “incentive” to work, welfare is thus seen as promoting moral weakness (ie laziness, time-wasting, “dependency”, etc). That’s bad enough in itself (from the perspective of Strictness Morality) – but, in addition, welfare is usually funded by taxing those who work. In other words, the “moral strength” (see part 1) of holding a job isn’t being rewarded in full – it’s being taxed to reward the “undeserving weak”.

Thus welfare is seen as doubly immoral in this system of moral metaphors. Of course, others would argue that the “disincentive” to work is provided not by welfare but by work itself – or rather by its long hours, soul-crippling tedium and low pay…

But that’s a different kind of framing.

“Might is right”

In ‘Strict Father’ (ie ‘Authoritarian’) morality, one must fight evil (and never “understand” or tolerate it). This requires strength and toughness and, perhaps, extreme measures. Merciless enforcement of might is often regarded as ‘morally justified’ in this system. Moral “relativism” is viewed as immoral, since it “appeases” the forces of evil by affording them their own “truth”.

“We don’t negotiate with terrorists… I think you have to destroy them. It’s the only way to deal with them.” (Dick Cheney, former US Vice President)

There’s another sense in which “might” (or power) is seen as not only justified (eg in fighting evil) but also as implicitly good: Strictness Morality regards a “natural” hierarchy of power as moral, and in this conservative moral system, the following hierarchy is (according to Lakoff’s research) regarded as truly “natural”: “God above humans”; “humans above animals”; “men above women”; “adults above children”, etc.

So, the notion of ‘Moral Authority’ arises from a power hierarchy which is believed to be “natural” (as in: “the natural order of things”). Lakoff comments:

“The consequences of the metaphor of Moral Order are enormous, even outside religion. It legitimates a certain class of existing power relations as being natural and therefore moral, and thus makes social movements like feminism appear unnatural and therefore counter to the moral order.” (George Lakoff, Moral Politics, p82)

In this metaphorical reality-tunnel, the rich have “moral authority” over the poor. The reasoning is as follows: Success in a competitive world comes from the “moral strengths” of self-discipline and self-reliance – in working hard at developing your abilities, etc. Lack of success, in this worldview, implies not enough self-discipline, ie moral weakness. Thus, the “successful” (ie the rich) are seen as higher in the moral order – as disciplined and hard-working enough to “succeed”.

If that seems no more than just a cynical rationalisation for greed and privilege, consider the notion of the Protestant roots of capitalism (nicely summed up here by Encyclopædia Britannica):

Protestant ethic, in sociological theory, the value attached to hard work, thrift, and efficiency in one’s worldly calling, which, especially in the Calvinist view, were deemed signs of an individual’s election, or eternal salvation.

German sociologist Max Weber, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904–05), held that the Protestant ethic was an important factor in the economic success of Protestant groups in the early stages of European capitalism; because worldly success could be interpreted as a sign of eternal salvation, it was vigorously pursued.

As someone whose views tend to fall into the left-libertarian category, I got attracted to this field (Cognitive Linguistics, Frame Semantics) because it provides a way to understand right-authoritarian thinking/morality (which I don’t “condone” any more than I condone drowning puppies en masse). The usual temptation – on the left – is to regard the ‘other side’ as immoral or amoral, lacking in any moral sense, driven only by greed, etc. But that’s close to viewing ‘them’ as subhuman – and before long you’re thinking in authoritarian-style, yourself.

Of course, none of this means that Lying Bastards & crooks are scarce in the political realm…

See also:
Part 1 of this article
Part 3 of this article

Graphics by NewsFrames

Written by NewsFrames

May 3, 2012 at 8:04 am

Essentials of framing – Part 1

This is a new, longish intro to the topic of framing – based on key themes in the work of cognitive scientist George Lakoff (who is widely recognised as probably the leader in the field).

“In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups,
parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche

“It’s because they’re stupid. That’s why
everyone does everything.”
– Homer Simpson

Frames are mental structures which shape our worldviews. They’re largely unconscious, but are revealed by the language we use. For example: “time is money”. This isn’t just a figure of speech – we conceive of time as a commodity, and the frame is activated by common phrases: “don’t waste my time”, “spending time”, “borrowed time”, “running out of time”, “I’ve invested a lot of time in it”, etc.

“Time is money” ↔ anxiety

This metaphorical conception of time isn’t universal – it doesn’t exist in all societies. Some cultures have no conception of “efficient use of time”.

The “time is money” frame has certain negative consequences (stress, insecurity, short-termism, etc) – in addition to the positive things claimed for it by business managers and orthodox economists. In fact, most anxiety seems to result from how we metaphorically conceive of our projected future. More on this later.

“Time is money” is a fairly obvious metaphorical frame. Less obvious is that morality is also routinely framed in terms of money transactions. We say that a person is “discredited” (their moral “credit” is withdrawn) when shown to be untrustworthy. We speak of “profiting” from good (ie moral) experience; we ask if a given course of action is “worth it”. The qualitative realm of morality is transformed into a quantitative one by conceptualising it in terms of accounting. If someone does you harm, you “pay them back”; if you treat me well, I am “in your debt”, etc.

Getting revenge

This type of framing has everyday implications. Suppose you are harmed or disadvantaged by someone’s “immoral” (or inconsiderate) actions. We may not see ourselves as the type of people who seek revenge, but it’s likely we think in terms of “paying someone back”. As a “balancing of the books” this can be seen as a moral good – a legitimate punishment. The morality of retribution is usually associated with conservatism, but it’s generally understood (ie accepted) because of the accounting framing. The fact that you “automatically” think along these lines may cause anxiety and cognitive dissonance if you don’t regard yourself as “that kind of person”.

Framing “work”

There are two common metaphors for work: as obedience and as exchange. In the work-as-obedience frame, there’s an authority (eg the employer) and there’s obedience to the commands of authority (ie work). This obedience is rewarded (pay). In the work-as-exchange frame, work is conceptualised as an object of value which belongs to the worker. This is exchanged for money.

Different consequences apply depending on the type of framing. In the obedience frame, the worker is expected to make personal sacrifices out of “loyalty” to the employer. This may help to explain why workers are giving £29 billion in unpaid overtime to their companies each year.

Why do so many workers tolerate a situation in which income is dependent on obedience? Perhaps it’s because their family upbringing involved the same kind of situation – eg they were expected to perform tasks out of obedience to parents. In other words, the work-as-obedience frame is a familiar part of their neurology, even though it may be disadvantageous in job/business settings.

‘Strict father’ syndrome

Lakoff argues that different types of family upbringing explain many moral and political frames. He makes the case that conservative values are based on a “strict father” upbringing model, and liberal (or “progressive”) values on a “nurturant parent” model. We all seem to have both models in our brains – even the most “liberal” person can understand a John Wayne film (Lakoff uses Arnold Schwarzenegger movies as examples of the ‘strictness’ moral system).

An adult might lean towards strictness in raising her own children, while demonstrating nurturant values in her professional life, or vice versa. Conservative politicians talk about “family values” all the time – even when there are more important issues (eg war, economy) to be addressed. What do family values have to do with these bigger issues? One suggestion is that by repeatedly talking about family values (to certain audiences – eg working-class Christians, in the US), the radical-right manages to activate the strictness frame for other domains (eg economy, welfare, crime, foreign policy, etc) – where it might not “naturally” (or traditionally) apply.

Frame semantics & fear

“Fear triggers the strict father model; it tends
to make the model active in one’s brain.”

– George Lakoff, ‘Don’t think of an elephant’, p42

In the ‘strict’ frame, the world is regarded as fundamentally dangerous and competitive. Good and bad are seen as absolutes, but children aren’t born good in this worldview – they have to be made good.* This requires that they are obedient to a moral authority. Obedience is taught through punishment, which, according to this belief-system, helps children develop the self-discipline necessary to avoid doing wrong. Self-discipline is also needed for prosperity in a dangerous, competitive world. It follows, in this worldview, that people who prosper financially are self-disciplined and therefore morally good.

This framing complements, in obvious ways, the ideology of “free market” capitalism. For example, in the latter, the successful pursuit of self-interest in a competitive world is seen as a moral good since it benefits all via the “invisible hand” of the market. In both cases do-gooders are viewed as interfering with what is right – their “helpfulness” is seen as something which makes people dependent rather than self-disciplined. It’s also seen as an interference in the market optimisation of the benefits of self-interest.

*Note: In some Christian versions of strict-father framing, children are believed to be born bad – not just “no good”, but “evil”, ie tainted with Original Sin. St Augustine (according to Bertrand Russell) “really believed new-born children to be limbs of Satan”. All the more need for punishment.

Strictness Morality & competition

A ‘reward & punishment’ type morality follows from strictness framing. Punishment of disobedience is seen as a moral good – how else will people develop the self-discipline necessary to prosper in a dangerous, competitive environment? Becoming an adult, in this belief-system’s logic, means achieving sufficient self-discipline to free oneself from “dependence” on others (no easy task in a “tough world”). Success is seen as a just reward for the obedience which leads ultimately to self-discipline. Remaining “dependent” is seen as failure.

[You may want to pause here. Can you see things differently from the strictness scheme? Or do no logical alternatives seem immediately obvious to you?] 

Competition is an important premise of Strictness Morality. By competing in a tough world, people demonstrate a self-discipline deserving of reward, ie success. Conversely, it’s seen as immoral to reward those who haven’t earned it through competition. By this logic, competition is seen as morally necessary: without it there’s no motivation to become the right kind of person – ie self-disciplined and obedient to authority. Constraints on competition (eg social “hand-outs”) are therefore seen as immoral.

‘Nurturant’ framing doesn’t give competition the same moral priority. ‘Progressive’ morality tends to view economic competition as creating more losers than winners, with the resulting inequality correlating with social ills such as crime, deprivation and all the things you hope won’t happen to you. The nurturant ideal of abundance for all (eg achieved through technological advance) works against the primacy of competition. Economic competition still has an important place, but as a limited (and fallible) means to achieving abundance, rather than as a moral imperative.

While nurturant morality is troubled by the fear of “not enough to go around for all”, strictness morality is haunted by the fear of personal failure, individual weakness. Even the “successful” seem haunted by this fear.

‘Moral strength’

Central to Strictness Morality is the metaphor of moral strength. “Evil” is framed as a force which must be fought. Weakness implies evil in this worldview, since weakness is unable to resist the force of evil.

People are not born strong, the logic goes; strength is built through learning self-discipline and self-denial – these are primary values in the strictness system, so any sign of weakness is a source of anxiety, and fear itself is perceived as a further weakness (one to be denied at all costs). Note that these views are all metaphorically conceived – instead of a force, evil could (outside the strictness frame) be viewed as an effect, eg of ignorance or greed – in which case strength wouldn’t make quite as much sense as a primary moral value.

It’s usually taken for granted that strength is “good” in concrete, physical ways, but we’re talking about metaphor here. Or, rather, we’re thinking metaphorically (mostly without being aware of the fact) – in a way which affects our hierarchy of values. With “strictness” framing, we’ll give higher priority to strength (discipline, control) than to tolerance (fairness, compassion, etc). This may influence everything from our relationships to our politics and how we evaluate our own mental-emotional states.

That might sound a little dramatic and a bit academic – until we see what’s happening in the real world on Fox News.

See also:
Part 2 of this article
Part 3 of this article

Graphics by NewsFrames

Written by NewsFrames

April 19, 2012 at 8:18 am

Media on Racism: Part 2 – Framing

Media on Racism - FramingJan 23, 2012Top Gear’s “lazy Africans Mexicans” routine was broadcast to millions. It made minor news, with no repercussions. Luis Suarez’s dialogue with Patrice Evra was heard by nobody and unrecorded, but it led to a media frenzy of blaming ‘n’ shaming – with many journalists mistaking their own carelessness for a moral high horse.

The different outcomes can be explained partly by the N-word and partly by a confused application of “zero tolerance” framing, both of which featured in the Suarez coverage, but not in the Top Gear case.

Racism framing & the N-word

No word is racist in itself – it depends on context/frame. Conceptual “frames” for racism include:Top Gear - "lazy Mexicans"

  1. Racial stereotyping/abuse
  2. Ironic slang
  3. Comedic mockery of stereotyping/abuse
  4. “Quoted” use in reportage, novel, film, etc

BBC and Ofcom initially dismissed the Top Gear incident as category #3 – but a later BBC investigation effectively placed it in category #1 (assuming that “Mexicans” connotes ethnicity – see part 1). That’s supposed to be serious – but you wouldn’t have thought so from the media coverage, or the lack of penalties for Top Gear’s producers.

The Suarez case was different, as it involved the N-word. In English (current usage), both “nigger” and “negro” imply a racist frame. “Negro” in Spanish is a different story, particularly in Latin American usage. The linguistic experts brought in by the Football Association (FA) stated that:

“The term can also be used as a friendly form of address to someone seen as somewhat brown-skinned or even just black-haired. It may be used affectionately between man and wife, or girlfriend/boyfriend, it may be used as a nickname in everyday speech, it may be used to identify in neutral and descriptive fashion someone of dark skin” (para 172my emphasis)

And the FA’s experts went further, pointing out that Suarez was innocent of racial abusiveness if his account of his use of “negro” was accurate:

“…the use of ‘negro’ as described here by Mr Suarez would not be offensive. Indeed, it is possible that the term was intended as an attempt at conciliation and/or to establish rapport”. (Para 190)

Of course, this assumes that Suarez’s account (eg that he said “negro” only once) was true. Evra claimed he used the word multiple times, and in a way that the FA’s language experts agreed would be considered offensive. The initial reaction to Suarez’s defence, from some commentators, was that whatever meanings the word had in Suarez’s country, there was “no excuse” for it in the United Kingdom“…

“Ignorance no excuse”

The Spanish word sounds different – and has different meanings – than the English version. Is it widely known that friendly use of the Spanish word may be mistaken for its racially-offensive use? Is it widely acknowledged that the friendly usage should therefore be avoided? The “ignorance is no excuse” objection doesn’t quite capture the logic – since the speaker might be aware that “negro” is usually offensive in English-language use. A conversation in Spanish is different. A whole cultural/linguistic can of worms is opened up (see “Whose Ignorance?” section below).

The FA’s panel effectively had two choices for “finding” Suarez guilty – they could accept Suarez’s claim of inoffensiveness, but punish him anyway (based on the “ignorance is no excuse” reasoning), or they could accept Evra’s version – ie direct racial insult. By choosing the latter, they effectively freed themselves from entanglement in cultural/linguistic issues – but they also gave themselves a seemingly impossible burden of proof, given the lack of evidence corroborating Evra’s account.

I say seemingly impossible – we shouldn’t forget the media’s role in making extraordinary things possible. (Let’s see… A war with Iraq based on zero evidence of WMDs, a single uncorroborated source and a dodgy dossier?)

Media distortion

Guardian's Stuart James on SuarezSo, how did the “quality” press report the crucial matter of Suarez’s use of the Spanish “negro”? First, here’s Stuart James in the Guardian (on the FA panel’s 115-page report):

And then we come to Suárez, whose own statement screamed his innocence and flew in the face of everything the linguistic experts told the FA panel when they analysed what the player said to Evra at Anfield, the context in which it was said and how his comments would be interpreted in his homeland and beyond. The experts’ conclusion, lest it be forgotten, was that Suárez’s remarks would be “considered racially offensive in Uruguay and other regions in of Latin America”. (Guardian, 3/1/12)

This is wholly misleading. Stuart James presumably didn’t read the section of the report which describes how the FA’s linguistic experts agreed with Suarez about non-racial use of the Spanish word “negro” (eg paras 190, 194). The line from the report that’s quoted by Stuart James (taken from the summary, para 453) refers not to “Suarez’s remarks”, but only to Evra’s uncorroborated account of them. The report is quite clear about this. The FA’s experts concluded that:

‘If Mr Suarez used the word “negro” as described by Mr Suarez, this would not be interpreted as either offensive or offensive in racial terms in Uruguay and Spanish-speaking America more generally’
(para 194 – my emphasis)

The question that Stuart James and his media colleagues should perhaps be asking is: why was this important part of the report not cited in a single newspaper report or commentary?

Meanwhile, here’s James Lawton commenting in the Independent:

You cannot do what Suarez did – as proved by video evidence and confirmed by linguistic expertise, including a knowledge of the nuances of references to race in the player’s native Uruguay – and get away with some implausible argument that you were innocent of the charges against you. Not when you have been found, irrefutably, to have said, without the interruption of any other word, “black, black, black…” (Independent, 2/1/12)

This is disturbingly inaccurate and misleading. Three falsehoods in one paragraph (the “confirmed by linguistic expertise”, “proved by video evidence” and “found, irrefutably […] black, black, black” claims). Lawton not only makes the same mistake as Stuart James regarding the “linguistic expertise”, he also seems unaware that the crucial Evra/Suarez dialogue is not on any video recording. His use of the phrase “found, irrefutably” seems bizarre in the extreme, referring as it does to one man’s unsupported, uncorroborated claim (para 378).

Sadly, this was typical of most UK media coverage. The important point about the FA’s language experts agreeing with Suarez over N-word usage (thereby reinforcing the stance taken by Liverpool FC) was lost beneath the misleading statements and moralising.

Framing wars & PR

In the days following the FA’s Dec 20th verdict (minus reasons, which came later), various news frames jostled for dominance. John Barnes was widely quoted, labelling the case a “witch hunt“. Ian Wright (in the Sun) criticised the FA: “I think the punishment – on all public evidence – is ridiculously harsh…”. (Some reports had already alluded to a previous FA hearing which decided that Patrice Evra’s evidence was “exaggerated and unreliable”). And, of course, there was Liverpool FC’s statement (critical of the FA verdict), which most media described as “strongly worded“, “forceful“, etc.

The coverage was mixed. But this appeared to end after the Guardian pushed hard with a framing of Liverpool’s “shameful” handling of the issue – triggered (it appears) by a seemingly trivial piece of non-news (T-shirts – more on this below). As an outsider, with no affiliations to Liverpool, fan-wise or otherwise, I observed the “respectable” media’s outpouring of vitriol (over nothing very much) with puzzlement. It was almost as if there were some kind of PR/lobbying going on behind the scenes.

Backlash against T-shirts!“Backlash” against T-shirts!
(& other faux “news”…)

In a match warm-up on 21 December, Liverpool players briefly wore T-shirts printed with a picture of Suarez. This reinforced the message of Liverpool’s earlier statement – and said nothing that wasn’t already articulated in the statement.

The Guardian constructed a “news” story around the T-shirts. In an article headed with the word “Backlash”, it cited a total of three people who objected to the T-shirts. It was a three-person backlash! The Guardian then ran another piece (headed with the word “shameful”) which cited the same three people (footballers Paul McGrath, Jason Roberts and Olivier Bernard). Bernard, now an anti-racism campaigner, offered his reasoning:

“I really didn’t think it was fine to wear the T-shirts. I can understand the club’s side of it, but in society we can’t accept racism and give support to a player who has used racist words” (Guardian, 22/12/11)

Which, of course, makes a pretzel out of logic. The T-shirts (and statement) were to indicate precisely that Liverpool doesn’t accept that Suarez used “racist” words.

The Guardian also ran a tabloid-style “poll” titled: “Were Liverpool’s Luis Suárez T-shirts distasteful?”. Other media ran with the T-shirt story, soon creating a perception that there was “widespread” condemnation of Liverpool’s “handling” of the issue.

Too Much Doubt

Troy Davis T-shirt campaignI’m reminded of another T-shirt gesture to protest a man’s innocence. It’s a different type of case, but the underlying logic (of protest) is exactly the same. Amnesty International published a statement about the flawed evidence against a man (Troy Davis) convicted of murder. There was a campaign (‘Too Much Doubt’) to raise awareness of problems with the evidence and the legal process.

The Guardian supported the campaign (T-shirts and all). Nobody, to my knowledge, argued that, in so doing, they were supporting the crime (rather than the man and his claims of innocence). The logic of protesting wasn’t drowned out with cries of “shameful” or “beyond the pale” – at least not in the UK’s “liberal” media.

“Zero Tolerance”

“Zero tolerance” on racism has been cited as justification for harsh criticism of Liverpool’s “handling” of the Suarez case. For example, the Guardian’s “Backlash” article stated that:

‘The T-shirts provoked criticism that the gesture conflicted with football’s anti-racism campaign Kick It Out, confusing its zero tolerance message’ (Guardian, 22/12/11)

The “zero tolerance” message has certainly been confused. It’s supposed to be zero tolerance of racism itself, not of the right to dispute somebody’s verdict. “Zero Tolerance” can be a dangerous thing when it’s used to stifle dissent and nullify claims of innocence – it diverges from civilised notions of justice, if one isn’t careful. Instead of being alert to such dangers, media commentators (as usual) seemed in thrall to “official” “authority” (in this case the FA and its “independent” 3-man panel). Unquestioning churnalism resulted.

Whose ignorance?

A cultural/linguistic can of worms is sometimes opened when a word is mistaken for a racial insult. How does one apply “zero tolerance” in these – often ambiguous – circumstances? There are several cases (mainly in USA) of the word “niggardly” being interpreted as a racial slur. In one incident, an aide to the mayor of Washington DC resigned after a complaint that he’d used the word “niggardly” when speaking with two African American employees.

Although this sounds like one of those absurd “political correctness” stories which the Daily Mail likes to make up, it’s true – and it has interesting implications. “Niggard” means ”miser” – it’s unrelated to the racial N-word. But it can be used as a racist code-word. (In March 2010, a billboard appeared in California that referred to President Obama as “niggardly”).

Steven Pinker, the linguist and best-selling author, comments:

‘… it is impossible for anyone to hear “niggardly” without thinking, if only for a moment, of the ethnic slur. […] Worse, the context is of little help in squelching the wrong meaning. […] After the various associates of a word light up in the mental dictionary, the rest of the brain can squelch the unintended ones, thanks to the activity that psycholinguists call “post-lexical-access processing” and that other people call “common sense”.’ (New York Times, 2/2/1999)

The ambiguity of “niggardly” among English speakers is different in kind to that of “negro” among Spanish speakers. But ambiguity is ambiguity, and the same question applies in both cases: if offence is taken mistakenly, does responsibility lie with the speaker or the offended party? In the case of the Mayor’s aide who resigned (he was later reinstated), most US media commentary suggested that the offended person’s ignorance was to blame (ie ignorance of the dictionary meaning of “niggardly”). But the reverse seems to be the case with the Suarez incident, even though Patrice Evra initiated the conversation in Spanish.


I’ll now attempt to answer a question posed in part 1 (“Is national stereotyping necessarily less serious than racial stereotyping?”). When people are perceived as mere units of a group stereotype, dehumanising horrors can result (as history shows) – whether the stereotyping is racial or national/ethnic. So, I can think of no good reason why the Top Gear case should be seen as less serious than racial use of the N-word in a football match. But the point was probably best made (as Steve Coogan suggested) by imagining the Top Gear presenters doing a routine about “lazy Africans” rather than “lazy Mexicans”.

‘If you are arguing for racial equality with a man who
keeps using the word “nigger”, you will eventually discover
that you are making no headway and that some barrier
prevents clear communication’
— Robert Anton Wilson

Written by NewsFrames

January 23, 2012 at 1:54 pm

Frank Luntz reframes Occupy

Frank Luntz reframes OccupyDec 5, 2011Frank Luntz is the US rightwing’s language guru. He publishes message-framing manuals for conservatives. (BBC’s Newsnight uses him as a pollster, but that’s another story). It was Luntz who, during the US health care debate, advised using terms such as “government-run” instead of “public option” – his focus groups had responded less favourably to the terms that (falsely) implied government funding.

A recent news report claims that Luntz has been advising Republicans on how to talk about the Occupy movement:

“I’m so scared of this anti-Wall Street effort. I’m frightened to death,” said Frank Luntz, a Republican strategist … “They’re having an impact on what the American people think of capitalism.”
(Yahoo! News 1/12/11)

The report lists Luntz’s 10 tips. These include telling the Occupy movement “I get it”, and avoiding the words “sacrifice” and “compromise”. But the ones which caught my attention were:-

  • ‘Don’t say “capitalism” … I’m trying to get that word removed and we’re replacing it with either “economic freedom” or “free market”.’
  • ‘Don’t say that the government “taxes the rich”. Instead, tell them that the government “takes from the rich”.’
  • ‘Don’t say “government spending”. Call it “waste”.’
  • ‘Always blame Washington. Tell them, “You shouldn’t be occupying Wall Street, you should be occupying Washington”.

You won’t be surprised to hear that little of this is new. It’s a series of frames (about government and markets) which together form what George Lakoff calls the Economic Liberty Myth. It’s already established in people’s minds from years of repetition via mass media, promoted by “market” thinktanks, city pundits, etc. In a nutshell, it’s about “freedom” – particularly “freedom of competition”, which supposedly leads to optimum “efficiency”, “opportunity”, etc. The “market” is cast as the freedom-loving hero, with the government as villain. (I go into more detail here, under the subheading “The Market Discipline frame”).

Occupy gives it a new twist

It’s the new developments that Frank Luntz is so afraid of. Namely:

  • The focus on financial sector bailouts.
  • The focus on the “99% vs 1%”; the immoral division of wealth.

The problem for Luntz is that even by “conventional” (ie sympathetic to “market”/city, private-wealth) standards of media coverage, the rightwing Economic Liberty Myth looks simply false in the context of the financial collapse/bailouts. (Why? Again, I provide a more detailed explanation of the framing issues here).

That’s why Luntz is saying: “You shouldn’t be occupying Wall Street, you should be occupying Washington”. And it’s why “market” lobby groups in the UK (such as the TaxPayers’ Alliance) are going to great lengths to frame the financial collapse in terms of government failures – as well as simply shifting the focus (and public anger) back to “government waste” (including the usual tabloid favourites – “benefit cheats“, etc).

The Economic Liberty Myth won’t be able to withstand a sustained, widespread popular focus on the financial collapse/bailouts and the immoral division of wealth – Luntz is right to be frightened.

Written by NewsFrames

December 5, 2011 at 1:41 pm

STRIKE! Work framed as Obedience

STRIKE! Work framed as ObedienceNov 30, 2011 – Today’s Daily Mail states that the 2 million people on strike today will “cause chaos”. After all, we’re not working. We think of “work” in many ways, but there are two dominant frames which tend to maintain the status quo (of appalling pay & working hours, concentrated wealth for the few). These frames are: Work as Obedience and Workers as Resources.

Work as Obedience

In the work-as-obedience frame, there’s an authority (the employer) and there’s obedience to the commands of authority (ie work). This obedience is rewarded (pay). Certain consequences follow from this metaphorical framing. The worker is expected to be loyal, to make sacrifices (contrast with the work-as-exchange* frame). This may explain why, each year, workers give £29 billion in unpaid overtime to their companies (according to TUC figures).

(Consider also that the average worker spends 139 hours a year commuting – another sacrifice).

Remember that frames function “below” consciousness, according to the cognitive scientists (I’ve written about this before: here & here). Why do people tolerate a situation in which income is dependent on obedience (to people they might regard as idiots)? Perhaps it’s because our upbringing results (in most cases) in the work-as-obedience frame being a familiar part of our neurology (consider the paternal representation of school/employer).

In adulthood, this work frame infantilises us, and it’s reinforced by the paternal-strictness type of attacks on the unemployed from politicians and media. Terms such as “workshy” and “scrounger” don’t suggest people aged 45+ who have lost their jobs.

Workers as Resources

The workers-as-resources metaphor is part of ‘market’ framing:

  • “Free market” means firms are free to manage their own resources.
  • Resources are acquired and disposed of – in a way which minimises costs, maximises “efficiency”, etc.
  • Labour is just another resource (as in “labour market”).

Excluded from the workers-as-resources metaphor is the human experience of working in a job, and the distinction between meaningful activity and dehumanising work (not to mention work which physically harms). Orthodox economics of both right and left “treat labor as a natural resource or commodity, on a par with raw materials, and speak in the same terms of its cost and supply” (Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By). Workers’ rights movements have fought against exploitation of workers (with some important successes) but have tended to implicitly accept this economic framing.

Protestant Work “Ethic”

The “work as obedience” metaphor is also linked to the moral framing of work which comes from religious traditions, most notably from the Protestant (or, rather, Puritan) Work Ethic. You don’t have to consciously subscribe to these religious beliefs to be affected – moral guilt over “laziness” seems to affect practically everyone in our society (but not in all societies – the framing isn’t universal).

And thus we arrive at these strange notions:

  • Work is morally virtuous regardless of the experience of the worker.
  • Firms should be “free” to make this experience even worse.

And so (to cut a long historical story short) we get the news frames of guilty “slackers”, irresponsible chaos-causing strikers – in opposition to the moral good (ie market fundamentalism and a joyless, outdated work ethic). And, to many, it looks just like “common sense”. Meanwhile, metaphorical terms such “flexible labour” (or worse, “cheap labour”) hide the reality of human degradation.

* The work-as-exchange frame is something that George Lakoff has written about in his work on conceptual metaphor. In this frame, work is conceptualised as an object of value which belongs to the worker. This is exchanged for money.

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November 30, 2011 at 9:27 am

Framing Occupy’s “demands”

Framing Occupy's "demands"Nov 23, 2011 – Should the Occupy movement make specific policy demands? I see two different approaches getting coverage – eg George Lakoff’s (Huffington Post) and Michael Albert’s (Guardian)

Lakoff says it’s “a good thing” that Occupy isn’t “making specific policy demands”. He argues that Occupy is about a shift in “moral focus”, and that, “If the movement is to frame itself, it should be on the basis of its moral focus, not a particular agenda or list of policy demands.”

Lakoff’s work (on moral-framing systems) shows how the American right succeeded by framing political issues in terms of a moral system which appeals to the “rugged individualist” identity, and which gives primacy to self-reliance and self-discipline, etc. Lakoff describes this moral system as follows:

“Conservatives have figured out their moral basis, and you see it on Wall Street. It includes: the primacy of self-interest. Individual responsibility, but not social responsibility. Hierarchical authority based on wealth or other forms of power. A moral hierarchy of who is “deserving,” defined by success.” [George lakoff, Framing Memo for OWS]

A large proportion of “the 99%” appear to vote out of identification with this “conservative” moral system – apparently against their own “rational” interests (as economists would put it). It seems important to realise this. Lakoff’s work is partly an attempt to explain why, and to offer alternative approaches (see below).

Michael Albert (co-editor of ZNet) suggests a different approach in his recent piece for the Guardian. Albert says that when a movement has sufficient strength (in numbers) it should make demands that “appeal to a very wide constituency”. The first example suggested by Albert is “the demand for full employment”:

“[S]eeking full employment makes sense because firing people is a way out of the current crisis that leaves elites stronger than they were before. It is a way out that leads right back to business as usual, with, in addition, a bonus for the rich and powerful in the form of a weakened working class. Clearly, we don’t want that. We want the opposite, a stronger working class and weaker elites. And that is the point. Full employment strengthens all workers, and it weakens all owners.”
[Michael Albert, Guardian, 15/11/11]

Albert adds that the larger “workforce” would work fewer hours “until the economy is back in shape”. He suggests “30 hours’ work for 40 hours’ pay, at least for everyone who is earning less than some quite high amount”.

“Full employment” – a fascist notion?

I shudder in horror whenever I hear the term “full employment”. The well-intentioned folk who propose it aren’t (I hope) thinking of forced labour, but it’s difficult to see how the latter doesn’t follow directly from the former. The ironies here… that a movement such as Occupy would propose an idea that seems deeply conservative* at best, and which has brutally authoritarian implications, at worst. Albert’s claim that “Full employment strengthens all workers, and it weakens all owners” seems, to me, an inversion of evidential reality in important respects – and it appears to confuse “employment” with livable income.

There’s enough material on the fascistic-seeming “full employment” framing for several articles, so I’ll leave further comment for future pieces. For now, consider the ways in which Michael Albert’s suggestions might conceptually “reinforce” the rightwing Economic Liberty Myth (a term coined by Lakoff). For example, Albert says Occupy should demand that people who have been fired are “rehired”. Central to the Economic Liberty Myth is the notion that employers “give jobs” to employees. This is what makes employers the heroes in the narrative – employers as the source not just of income, but of “meaningful activity” (“work”) and social relationships. The only other alternative (according to the myth) is: people sitting at home doing nothing, wasting their lives, isolated, socially useless parasites. In this quaint fairy tale, the employers – the bosses, the owners – save us all from that horrible fate. We demand it.

Lakoff’s alternative

To return to Lakoff’s idea: that Occupy frames itself “on the basis of its moral focus, not a particular agenda or list of policy demands.” What would this look like in practice? Lakoff’s analysis of the “nurturant” morality which underlies progressive politics suggests the following:

• Publicise The Public: Frame in terms of the common wealth, public infrastructure, public lands, public safety nets. As Lakoff puts it: “The Public is not opposed to The Private. The Public is what makes The Private possible. And it is what makes freedom possible. Wall Street exists only through public support. It has a moral obligation to direct itself to public needs.”

• Reframe The Private Market: Large corporations/banks act like private governments and should be framed as such. They use vast amounts of taxpayers’ money. And not just in bailouts. They’ve always depended on publicly-funded infrastructure. Avoid the corporation-as-individual metaphorical frame, which transfers the notion of “rights” from the domain of individual persons to institutions of concentrated wealth and power.

(My own modest contribution – explained here & here – is that the financial sector should be framed in terms of systemic risk rather than by conventional economic-framing of “competition”, “efficiency”, etc).

• Reframe Income/Work: Technology is, to a large extent, publicly-funded. (Boeing and Microsoft, for example, wouldn’t exist without the decades of public funding of aerospace and computer research and development). The great concentration of private wealth resulting from productivity increases (due to publicly-underwritten technological advances) should be framed as immoral. The so-called “labour market” can be framed as an ideological construct which has failed to provide a fair distribution of wealth, even with relatively high levels of “employment”.

Elsewhere (Moral Politics, p421), Lakoff has suggested a Negative Income Tax as a means of more fairly distributing wealth. But since we’re discussing how Occupy might frame a shift in moral focus, rather than specific policy, I won’t go into details here. (I’ve written about Negative Income Tax – and similar schemes – in a previous piece).

Additional material

Douglas Rushkoff does a great job of reframing the whole job/income issue here (video) & here.

See also this interesting piece on Lakoff/Occupy from the Overweening Generalist blog.

* I agree with Bob Black’s essay, The Abolition of Work, that all ideologies (whether Marxist, Liberal or Conservative, etc) seem conservative to the extent that they believe in maximising employment.

Written by NewsFrames

November 23, 2011 at 1:17 pm

“Financial Crisis” & Media Compartmentalising

"Financial crisis", media compartmentalising & cognitive disconnectNov 16, 2011 – Media compartmentalising, like frames, can be difficult to spot – particularly in reports which seem factually correct and relatively “balanced”.

Take the global financial meltdown (or “credit crunch”, if you think it resembles a breakfast cereal). Much of the reporting of this complex set of events seems “correct” factually, and even in assigning blame. And yet… if you’re like me, you’ve found it inadequate and unsatisfying. There’s a massive cognitive disconnect here, and it can’t be explained in terms of simple media “bias” (political or otherwise).

Here’s the basic narrative from the best media coverage (in a nutshell and in my words):

The financial collapse stemmed from an ideology (Neoliberalism), in which the financial sector was given free rein to profit with minimum regulation – eg from the high-risk (and very lucrative) subprime lending market. Its false sense of security was due to inadequate models of risk which ultimately failed when the US property market crashed.

That seems accurate enough, based on the known facts. So why the cognitive disconnect? I would guess it’s due to media compartmentalisation of the following two areas:

  1. Framing of market ideology (“Neoliberalism”, “Capitalism”) in terms of things like “business efficiency” and “competition” in the real world.
  2. Framing of specific “failures” (particularly to do with “risk” & regulation) in the “virtual” world of finance.

The media reporting of the “facts” of the meltdown tends to use 2, with 1 as general background. The “failures”, as reported, occurred in 2, but the fundamental role of 1 in creating the conditions which led to those “failures” (and to the whole “crisis”) is rarely explored.

There’s a huge disconnect, for example, when regulatory “failures” are reported merely in terms of absence of attention to details and technical matters. The years of deregulation, and the failures of regulators, were both due to a culture in which “market discipline” was believed to be the most “efficient” form of regulation. (See my previous piece on the “market discipline” frame). This was an ideology, a sort of secular religion, in which the “free market” was seen as superior to all other forms of organisation.

Given the framed ideological primacy of competitive profit-making and the presumed non-reality of other kinds of social value, market self-regulation was taken for granted as the right way. One result of this (among others) was the rapid emergence of a multi-trillion-dollar market in over-the-counter derivatives – unregulated, not counted by any central authority… plus international agreements allowing banks to measure their own riskiness.

John Lanchester (author of Whoops! – one of the few accounts of the meltdown to successfully integrate 1 & 2 to produce a convincing narrative) gives an example of conventional media reporting, regarding the ideology:

“You get a glimpse into the world-view when you look at The Economist. It is […] full of good first-hand fact-finding. […] But every single piece, on every single subject, reaches the same conclusion. Whatever you’re reading about, it turns out that the solution is the same: more liberalization, more competition, more free markets. However nuanced and original the detail in the bulk of the piece, the answer is always the same; it makes The Economist seem full of algebraic formulas in which the answer is always x.”

Of course, if media reports were framed in a way that showed clearly how “x” was the main, central, primary, fundamental factor (or “cause”) creating the conditions that led to disaster, they couldn’t very well present “x” as the solution to every economic scenario. There are certain realities that The Economist (and other similar media) cannot ignore if they wish to remain remotely credible. And so we get compartmentalisation, whether intentional or not.

There has been, for a long time, a cultural divide in Britain between the The City (finance capitalism) and dirty industry/manufacturing. Ironically, the market ideology which led to massive expansion of the financial sector (over the three decades since Margaret Thatcher came to power) is built on a metaphorical framing (concerning things like “efficiency” and “free competition”) which goes back to Adam Smith’s era. When Smith wrote about the “division of labour” and the “invisible hand of the market“, etc, he wasn’t thinking about risk-modelling for Credit Default Swaps (CDS) on Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDO) on pools of subprime mortgages. He was thinking about “tangible” things like pin factories.

(The insurance giant AIG was the biggest player in the CDS market. It was brought to its knees by CDSs on CDOs, but was Too Big To Fail, and enjoyed the biggest bailout of a private firm in history. How’s that for “efficiency”, “competitiveness” and good old-fashioned industriousness).

Framing “risk” – and its importance

In my previous piece, and above, I’ve singled out “risk” as the all-important factor in the financial sector (in contrast with the importance placed on “efficiency” and “free competition” in general business). Why? Because risk determines the outcomes of finance-capitalism in a way that is far removed from our conceptions of things like competitive efficiency in the “real world”. This is illustrated by how banking works, even at a basic level…

Banks pay a low rate of interest to depositors, and charge a higher rate to borrowers – thus making a profit. Banks don’t really make money from providing a “service” – they make it from taking on risk (eg the risk of loans going bad). It’s a “respectable” form of gambling. There are, of course, rules governing the amount of capital (eg deposits) that banks must keep against the risk of loans not being repaid, etc. These rules limit the amount of lending (and other speculation) that banks can make – ie the level of risk they can take on. But they also limit the banks’ profits. The banks hate this. The ‘innovative’ financial products I’ve been writing about (the ones which played such an important role in the financial meltdown – CDSs, CDOs, etc) were designed to get around the rules on risk – in very complex, and profitable, ways – with the effect of making it practically impossible to monitor systemic risk.

Why Nassim Taleb seems angry…

Nassim Taleb - angry on NewsnightIf you haven’t already seen this entertaining clip of Nassim Taleb (author of The Black Swan) on Newsnight, I recommend it. Taleb is angry with “tie-wearing economists” peddling bogus measures of risk in the financial markets.

If you pay attention to what Nassim is saying, you’ll see that he’s talking almost entirely about risk. (If you’re new to the topic, reading my previous piece might help to clarify some of his points). One of the highlights is when presenter Emily Maitlis asks, “Does this require a mindset change?”.

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November 16, 2011 at 1:24 am

The “Financial Collapse” & framing

The "Financial Collapse" & framingNov 9, 2011 – What can be said about the financial collapse that may help in terms of framing? A few things…

Market ideology & the
wrong framing of “regulation”

In October 2008, Alan Greenspan admitted he had found “a flaw in the model that I perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works.”

John Lanchester, author of Whoops!, commented: “The entire climate of opinion, in the world of power, was in favour of laissez-faire and deregulation and ‘innovation’, so if it hadn’t been Greenspan advocating this ideology… it would have been someone else. This was the system.”

The ideology has long been sold to the “layperson” via the concept of “efficiency”. Here’s the most simple form it takes:

  • Competitive actions (eg for profit) are the most efficient
  • Interfering with competition reduces efficiency

“Regulation”, in this frame, means interfering with “free competition”, which means “reduced efficiency”. (From a conservative moral-value system, this is seen as not just bad, but immoral). So, historically, strong regulation has been introduced only after outright disaster. (A good example is the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act which separated investment – ie “casino” – banking from regular deposit-loan banking.*)

According to former IMF chief economist, Simon Johnson, it’s because of this ideology (ie framing), in confluence with political campaign financing, banking lobby pressure, etc, that “there flowed, in just the past decade, a river of deregulatory policies that is, in hindsight, astonishing”. (The Quite Coup, The Atlantic, 2009)

Why wrong?

Why is the market framing of “regulation” inappropriate in this context? Because banking, financial speculation, etc, is not about “efficiency”. At least not in the usual way that we understand “efficiency” to be a good thing. Money is made in the financial sector from “managed risk” – where reward correlates with risk, not with “efficiency”. (At a basic level: a risky bet – eg subprime lending – makes more money for a lender than a safe bet makes).

The speculators’ main question is not, “how can we increase efficiency?”. It’s: “how can we most profitably manage risk?”. The answer to this question has come in the form of ‘innovative’ financial products – eg Credit Default Swaps (CDS) and Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDO) – which played a major part in the financial meltdown. (More on this below).

In the context of risk (with “efficiency” relatively low in importance), regulation looks like the hero rather than the villain. But in market framing (“efficiency”, “free competition”, etc) it’s the villain. We should be talking repeatedly about risk: dangerous, unquantified, irresponsible, runaway profit-at-all-costs financial risk-taking by banks – not least because the systemic risk which led to the global meltdown is still present in the system (because the system hasn’t fundamentally changed – eg see Nassim Taleb’s comments).

“Invisible Hand” of Credit Default Swaps

Why were Credit Default Swaps such a major Weapon of Mass Destruction? CDSs are a new (and diabolically clever) way to profitably “manage” risk. They resemble insurance against defaults on loans, but streamlined, packaged and on an industrial scale – with risk apparently magicked away with mathematics and computing power. As John Lanchester puts it: “It’s a basic law of money that risk is correlated to reward – the amount of money you can make is determined by the amount of risk you are willing to take on. But you’ve just engineered that risk out of existence”.**

CDS was a dream product. All the profit from taking on risk, but without the danger of risk (it also helped to bypass banking rules about holding a certain amount of capital in reserve against the risk of outstanding loans – since that risk had ‘disappeared’).

In just over a decade, the CDS market grew from nothing to $54 trillion.***

Take a moment to ponder that figure, since it’s close to the total GDP of the planet. Realise, also, that there was a congressional ban on the regulation of Credit Default Swaps. They could be purchased “over the counter” – rather than traded on a regulated exchange.

So, the banks’ money is generated from risk, not from “efficiency” or “productive work”. It’s like a global casino for the ultra-rich. The ‘innovative’, unregulated financial products supposedly “engineered” risk away in such a clever way that one didn’t need to worry about it. But the taxpayer ended up paying the bill for this ballooning financial risk-taking…

Market “experts” evaluate risk

Something called “Value at Risk” (VaR) became the standard measure of market risk. With the prevalence of ultra-complex ‘innovative’ financial products (such as CDSs) VaR became increasingly popular, as it provided a way for managers (and, basically, everyone who didn’t understand these ‘innovative’ products) to put a figure on the risk being run (using a computer-based “expert” probabilistic formula).

Back in 1997, Nassim Taleb (author of The Black Swan) commented on this industry-standard measure of risk:

“VaR is charlatanism because it tries to estimate something that is not scientifically possible to estimate, namely the risk of rare events. It gives people a misleading sense of precision.”

The “flaw” which Alan Greenspan identified in his own “model” of the way the “world works” (see Greenspan quote, above) is to do with risk, and the fact that deregulated “market discipline” (which takes a central role in Greenspan’s metaphorical world) is unable to cope with the growing systemic complexities of risk in the financial markets. The US housing crash was not a particularly unlikely scenario, but “market discipline” (using market-developed mathematical models of risk) failed to prevent the resulting catastrophe.

The “Market Discipline” frame

“Market discipline” is closely linked to the idea that “free competition” necessarily maximises “efficiency”, producing the optimum outcome for all. The belief is that you don’t need “regulation” (which is seen as unnatural, immoral and inefficient), because you have “market discipline”. It’s part of what Lakoff calls the Economic Liberty Myth.’ This rightwing ideological myth unites the following ideas in a complex moral frame:

  • “Free markets are natural and moral”
  • “Competition naturally maximises efficiency”
  • “Private industry is more efficient than government”
  • “Regulation reduces market efficiency”
  • “Everybody with sufficient discipline can succeed”
  • “Market discipline is natural; regulation is unnatural”

Lakoff describes (eg in Whose Freedom) the ways in which this myth generally fails to account for the facts of economic reality. Building on Lakoff’s thesis, I would argue that banks (and the whole financial sector) provide the starkest possible example of reality failing to conform with market mythology. This is because complex risk takes the place of “efficiency” (as primary determining business factor) in a virtual realm of abstract wealth, where efficiency (in its usual, tangible/physical sense) has little meaning.

The reason why the market mythology appeals to so many people (not just rightwing ideologues) is that our thoughts about “efficiency”, “discipline”, etc, are grounded in real experience – eg in physical efforts and human interactions. The market myth is isomorphic  – via metaphor – to a part of that experience. But only to a part.

Non-market framing – what the market myth leaves out:

  • Natural economies of scale, the commons – isomorphic to “public infrastructure”
  • Natural systemic regulation of the whole (as opposed to partial/anal “discipline”)
  • System-wide “efficiency”, not reducible to “competition” of parts
  • Natural non-efficient “redundancy” (important aspect of evolution)
  • (Etc, etc)

Both market and non-market frames are grounded in “real experience” – but market frames have been promoted far more (as a result of decades of well-funded rightwing thinktank and media activity, etc). As a result, we tend to conceptualise in market terms (“businesses must compete freely, without interference, to maximise efficiency”, etc). But systemic risk in the “global economy” has become obvious to everyone (because it affects virtually everyone). Current market models of risk, driven by market ideology, are not adequate to deal with the level of risk now existing in the market – ie a high level of risk resulting from deregulation and the expansion of derivatives markets (eg CDS), etc. The cognitive task ahead is to make it obvious – part of common sense – that ideological market framing can be (and most often is) dangerous and destructive to the extent that we mistake it for the whole of reality.


* The Glass-Steagall Act was abolished in 1999, after pressure from banks. When markets are “booming”, banks become more politically powerful – there’s pressure to remove regulation. See the excellent Atlantic article, The Quiet Coup, by Simon Johnson, former IMF chief economist.

** John Lanchester, Whoops! – Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay

*** Credit Default Swaps are a type of derivative. The global HQ for the derivatives market is London, where the turnover of over-the-counter derivatives peaked (in 2007) at $2.1 trillion every day. (That’s not a typing error. $2.1 trillion every day). [Ibid, p172-173]. According to the Wiki entry on over-the-counter derivatives, “the total outstanding notional amount is US$684 trillion (as of June 2008). Of this total notional amount, 67% are interest rate contracts, 8% are credit default swaps (CDS), 9% are foreign exchange contracts, 2% are commodity contracts, 1% are equity contracts, and 12% are other. Because OTC derivatives are not traded on an exchange, there is no central counter-party. Therefore, they are subject to counter-party risk, like an ordinary contract”.

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November 9, 2011 at 1:37 pm

“Officials say…” – The Guardian’s idea of journalism

"Officials say..." The Guardian's idea of journalismNov 3, 2011 – Today’s Guardian leads with a story concocted from anonymous “officials” – unnamed “sources”. The Guardian “has been told” stuff – by people who won’t take responsibility for telling it. What have these anonymous “official” people been saying? That Iran is taking a “belligerent posture” and… well, you probably know what comes next:-

‘The Guardian has been told that [military] planners expect any campaign to be predominantly waged from the air, with some naval involvement, using missiles such as the Tomahawks, which have a range of 800 miles (1,287 km). There are no plans for a ground invasion, but “a small number of special forces” may be needed on the ground, too.’ (Guardian, 3/11/11*)

Again, let’s be clear about who is saying what. To quote the Guardian article:

[Unnamed] British officials say that if Washington presses ahead it will seek, and receive, UK military help…”

“The Guardian has spoken to a number of [unnamed] Whitehall and defence officials over recent weeks…”

“The Guardian has been told [by unnamed entities] that…”

“One [unnamed] senior Whitehall official said…”

“In addition to that, [unnamed] officials now believe…”

[Unnamed] Ministers have also been told [by unnamed entities] that…”

“The [unnamed] senior Whitehall source said…”

“… [unnamed] diplomats believe…”

“Another [unnamed] Whitehall official, with knowledge of Britain’s military planning, said…”

“Another [unnamed] source added…”

“An [unnamed] MoD spokesman said…” (At least they’ve narrowed this down to the MoD.)

“One [unnamed] official said…”

“Western intelligence agencies say…” (Western? Can they not narrow it down to, say, a country?)

“A source said…” (You guessed it – an unnamed source)

[Unnamed] Experts believe…”

[Unnamed] British officials admit to being perplexed by what they regard as Iran’s new aggressiveness…”

(All of these attributions to unnamed sources come from the one Guardian article, written by Nick Hopkins).

War framing

What do all these unnamed sources have in common? From what they are reported as saying, it seems they all believe in – or wish to promote – the Fairy Tale of the Just War. In this frame, there’s a villain and a hero – the villain is evil, and the hero is “left with no choice” but to engage the villain in battle, and thus restore the “moral balance”. The “moral balance” in this scenario is that the heroic “West” remains armed with planet-destroying nukes, etc, while the villains are “disarmed”. Order and harmony are thereby restored.

The villains must be disarmed, as otherwise they could victimise the hero and the people the hero defends. The hero makes sacrifices, undergoes difficulties, has “tough decisions”, etc. And, of course, the hero acts honourably by going out of his way to avoid harming innocent bystanders (well, apart from several hundred thousand civilian deaths), whereas the treacherous, immoral villain doesn’t care who gets hurt.

That’s just the basic outline. The frame has further implications and consequences. For example, heroes don’t negotiate with evil villains – they defeat them, etc. (George Lakoff has provided a more in-depth look at metaphorical framing of war – PDF file).

* Note – the Guardian piece first appeared online on the afternoon of the day (2/11/11) before it was printed on the front page (3/11/11). There are a few minor differences in wording between online and printed versions. I’ve quoted from the online version.

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November 3, 2011 at 11:30 am